Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln

Of course, most of you know that Burlingame recently published his massive 2-volume study of Abraham Lincoln.  This talk was recorded at Illinois College on March 26, 2009.  Click through the video to get the rest of his talk.  In part 3 Burlingame suggests that Lincoln was assassinated by John W. Booth as a result of his suggestion that some blacks should be given the right to vote.  He goes on to suggest that Lincoln’s assassiantion should be understood as part of a larger narrative that includes Martin L. King, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwermer and other civil rights advocates.  I think he is right about the first point, but I’m not sure I buy the second.  Regardless, Burlingame is one of the more thoughtful Lincoln scholars and you are sure to learn something.

Session 4 “Predictions for the Election of 1860”

Elizabeth Varon, Nelson Lankford, Jean Baker, Daniel Crofts

Context: The stability of a two-party system rested on shaky ground surrounding the nature of sovereignty.  This gave rise to fears of secession and disunion that continued to escalate through the 1850s.  By the mid-1850s the Whig Party became isolated over the issue of slavery – to survive they would have had to come out as a pro-slavery party.  Whigs suffered from the loss of notable leaders (Webster and Clay) and they also lose some of their economic issues.  Once they lose that focus they are unable to maintain their structure on a national level.  The Democrats were the dominant national party, though the Buchanan Administration had been discredited owing to the prez’s weakness.  The Whigs also suffered from the influx in new immigrants who aligned themselves to the Democratic Party – promised to treat them civilly for political purposes.  This led to the formation of the American or Know-Nothing Party which focused on the dangers of immigration and the threat to national identity.  By 1856 the Democratic Party appeared to be the party of the future.  The Dems controlled both the House and the Senate as well as the Supreme Court.  They have everything going their way.  The problem is that the Party pledged itself to protect slavery.  Kansas-Nebraska, however, presented a number of problems because the various factions in the party failed to support it.  The leading Democrat in Illinois ended up in direct conflict with Buchanan.

This opened up an opportunity for a new political party.  Republican Party benefited from the caning of Charles Sumner, which occured a few weeks before their convention. – Preston Brooks helped to create the Republican Party.   The pervasiveness of conspiracies may have also benefited the early Republican Party given its assumptions about the ultimate goals of slaveowners.  The Republican Party in 1856 looked to ending the control of the federal government by slaveowners.  The 1856 election gave Republicans a great deal to be hopeful about.  Republicans built a consensus around what they took to be a bloodless policy: they want to simply stop the spread of slavery west.  They were committed to no longer making concessions to slaveholders.  This non-expansion of slavery was heavily charged for slaveholders who believed that slavery could be utilized along a wide spectrum of landscapes.

Dred Scott: The decision was complicated in terms of who signed which part of it.  Taney and the majority came down on the same side in ruling that he could not sue since he was not a citizen – blacks had no rights that whites had to support.  This meant that free blacks could be sent back into slavery.  For Republicans the sticking point was that Congress had no power to legislate on slavery and worked to support that there was a conspiracy.  Republicans would have assumed tight control of the federal government which they needed to counteract.  By Dred Scott the Republican Party had secured itslef as a solid regional party.  Northern states command 170 electoral votes, however, Republicans must defend themselves from charges that they want to steer the nation down the road to emancipation.

Abraham Lincoln emerged out of a series of debates with Douglass.  Republican managers targeted three states in the 1860 election; one of them was Illinois.  John Brown’s raid prevented Upper South residual Whigs from communicating with Republicans.

Democrats need to hold on to states won in 1856.  Jean Baker thinks that Dems should have nominated a northern Democrat.  In 1857 Jefferson Davis argued that the Dems would never win unless they run a northerner like Franklin Pierce.  He have been able to save Penn. Their biggest problem is that the most popular Dem was hated in the South.  However, if you don’t nominate him they were likely not to hold the necessary states.

Republicans needed to deal successfully with the legacy of Brown and the image of an “Irrepressile Conflict”.  Republicans need to present themselves as a conservative party.

Predictions: It can only be answered regionally.  There is a middle group of states that are uncertain, but interested in the possibilities of a border state confederacy (KY, MO, DE – Va is the big player). People in the South will vote Democrat.  If Republicans win Ill, IN, and PA they win.  Seward was still the front-runner.  It’s not clear that Lincoln will be the nominee though Lincoln is working hard to correct this by giving speeches and waiting in the wings.

Sorry for the poor summary but my hands are tired and I am exhausted. 🙂

Session 3 “Making Sense of John Brown’s Raid”

David Blight, David Reynolds, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker

It is interesting that we are commemorating the life of someone who committed treason.  Research is now being done on just how many blacks from Jefferson County were involved in one way or the other – we must move beyond the standard number of 5.  New research suggests that it might have been around 300.  John Brown’s plan was a military disaster and we must account for why blacks in the region were so suspicious of him.  According to Blight many slaves were suspicious of their would-be friends.  Brown had not really laid the groundwork for what was needed in a successful raid at H.F.  There were 16,000 slaves in the six counties around H.F.  In areas where there were large black families men were very cautious so as not to risk their families – this may explain their caution in response of Brown.  Most people, including Douglass viewed it as a “suicide mission.”  We must see the Brown raid as the culmination of agitation on the part of the black community throughout the 1850s; it was not an aberration given the number of blacks that escaped to the north.  Many blacks debated the appropriateness of the use of violence to bring about emancipation.  Brown was extremely conscious of a long history of black resistance that extended into Jamaica.  Three slave rebellions took place in Va., but they all failed.  So, what lessons did Brown gleen from these failed attempts?  In 1848 Brown paid to have two poems on black resistance published; he also reflected on the failed rebellons of Spartacus.

Unlike many abolitionists, Brown was not condescending to blacks.  He attended their churches and treated them as equals – he adhered to a God that was omnipotent, omnipresent, and morally just.  Brown viewed himself as an agent of that God – bounded by his religious sensibilities.  To grasp what he did at H.F. we must get our heads around B’s Calvinism:  innate depravity, providential signs, and predestination.  Brown did not enjoy the prosperity that many white northerners enjoyed during the Jacksonian Period.  This may have driven him further into the realm of religion and emancipation.

“Bleeding Kansas”: Only selected members of pro-slavery families at Pottawatomie Creek.  It must be seen as part of the immense violence that took place in Kansas at that time.  It was an act of war in a vigilante war.  The PM and the battles that flowed from it is where Brown’s reputation begins to grow back East.  Brown believed that slavery must be understood as a declaration of war against blacks.  Slavery was not an abstraction for Brown.  His repulsion goes back to his early life when he watched a slave being beaten with a shovel as well as his disgust over how free blacks were treated in the North.  Brown probably spent more time with blacks than with white abolitionists.

Harper’s Ferry: John Brown created a conspiracy, including the raising of money and recruits, though he was very secret about it.  Very few people were brought into Brown’s circle; most people had very little understanding of Brown’s intentions.  Brown hoped to recruit hundreds for the expedition, but ultimately only 19 joined.  It’s not clear what Brown intended to bring about.  It was not like Gabriel and Vessey in that they involved thousands, Brown’s model was Nat Turner – begin with a slave rebellion and hope that it spreads.  Why did Va permit him to make his statements and hold a trial?  Henry Wise was an admirer of Brown.  The trial reflects Virginia’s committment to the rule of law, even in these extreme circumstances.  Brown’s accounts were printed because the reporters understood implicity that most of their Southern readers would think Brown insane.  In the end, Va’s decision to hold a public trial allowed Brown to make his case and began the process of martyrdom – this is how Brown gained victory from failure.

Reaction: Initial response in both North and South was negative.  At first the transcendentalists publicized Brown’s actions, which was soon taken up by some in the abolitionist community.  Most important reaction from across the north was the religious response – it became an “American crucifixion” for many northerners.  Blacks in the North declared him to be a hero from the beginning as well as within the abolitionists.  Unionists and conservatives held meetings to try to prove to the South that they did not support him.  Republicans also tried to distance themselves from Brown.  Most northern town rang their bells to mark his hanging; they condemned the act, but used it to shine the light on slavery.  In a matter of weeks white northerners sympathized with Brown owing to the language that was marshaled to describe his actions as well as his behavior in the face of the gallows.

No surprise that white Southerners viewed him as insane who had perverted Christianity.  It was the height of un-Christian behavior.  Southerners used Brown to demonstrate what most Northerners wanted to do to them.  Brown was thinking about the timing of the raid in light of the upcoming presidential election.  According to Blight he wanted to hold it earlier.


I doubt that there are 2,000 people in attendance, but this is still a significant turnout.  The panelists from the two morning sessions are now taking questions from the audience.  I’ve met a number of blog readers and had a chance to talk with Andrew Dupstadt (Civil War Navy Blog) who is here with a contingent from North Carolina who are organizing their sesquicentennial.  Both sessions have been informative and the verdict of the participants thus far suggests that the format is working.  A wide range of issues have been raised to give the audience a sense of the state of the Union in 1859.

No surprise that this is an overwhelmingly white audience and if I were to guess the average age is somewhere in the mid-50s.  Well, it is a workday.  The overall tone is markedly different from that of the centennial.  I had a chance to talk with David Blight about this contrast during the last break.  Panelists have analyzed its importance with a certain comfort and ease that would have been unheard of just a few decades ago.  Walter Johnson just referenced the fact that a few slaveholders were, in fact, black.  There is no celebratory tone in this hallway.  This is an audience that has come to learn about American history in all of its complexity.  Given the constant Online banter that emanate from certain quarters about disengaged scholars I can only wish that you were sitting here today.  I am looking at eight of the top scholars engaging and arena full of people.  What a treat.

I can’t think of a better way of opening Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Session 2: “The Future of Virginia and the South” (Part 2)

If you visited Richmond in 1859 you would have witnessed a great deal of change, including ships going down the James with wheat for Australia, an increasing number of railroads, and a noticeable immigrant population.  Within this, slavery played a vital role and it was being utilized in a growing number of industrial settings within the region.  [Was this the future of the South?]  Insurance policies were more and more being taken out for slaves.  Slaveowners wanted to protect their property and Richmond legislators supported it.  Enslaved population of the South was worth more than all the railroads and factories in the North.

Va’s Role in the South: 1810 there were 22 congressman and in 1859 there were 11 – on a national level Va’s influence was in decline and its population did not have the prestige they was garnered, though Va still had more representation than other southern states.  Virginians felt a sense of loss and influence of powere in the federal government.  Important to note that other southern states still looked to Va for leadership – it had the largest slave population.  Within this there was an increasing loss of power from the Upper to Lower South.  A potential regional crisis might place Virginia in an awkward position.  Richmond’s modernity was used to further the institution of slavery (especially the railroads and sales).

The panelists have done an excellent job of highlighting just how interconnected Richmond was with both the rest of the South as well as the North.  We need to move beyond these static regional distinctions that fail to acknowledge the multiple connections that Richmonders experienced on a daily basis.

Session 2: “The Future of Virginia and the South”

john_brown_1859Bob Kenzer, Charles Dew, Gregg Kimball, Lauranett Lee

While the population of Virginia was expanding there were problems.  Va was a net exporter of people.  Many white Virginians had to make very difficult decisions such as Cyrus McCormick who moved to Chicago.  Important to distinguish between the many geographic sections of Virginia.  Keep in mind that the state included the present state of W. Virginia.  Free blacks lived precarious lives; at different times they were forced to leave the state.

The largest crop in Virginia in 1859 was the wheat crop though it was growing more slowly than other parts of the country such as the west.  The emerging crop was the bright leaf tobacco, which was the new cash crop.  This was one sector where Virginia was holding its own and helped to sustain the loss of the population south and west of Richmond.  Richmond was a vital exporting node for the nation in 1859 – think of it as the southern point of the northeast transportation network.  The state of Richmond in 1859 serves as a reminder that the South was not monolithic.  The city was connected to the rest of the nation as well as the broader Atlantic economy.

Slave Trade in Richmond: Weekly sales figures for Hector Davis (Richmond slave auctioneer in 1858: $1,77321 and 1859: $2,671,572).  Tredegar didn’t bring in anywhere near this amount of money, which should give us a sense of how profitable the slave trade was at the end of the 1850s.  There was no stigma of being a slave trader in Richmond in the 1850s.  Sales were held at Shockoe Bottom as well as hotels in the area (Anthony Burns was resold into slavery in this location).

Remember to send questions to me at kevlvn@aol.com for the panelists.  You can still send questions for the first panel.